I first heard about Burning Man festival in the year 2000, while working in New York. I had fallen in love with a colourful handmade pair of pants, and met the artist Kat later that year to pick up a custom piece featuring red-back spiders that she made for me.
She told me stories of a festival that was colourful and crazy, full of art and wonder, where people could be whatever they wanted to be. It culminated in the burning of an effigy of a man. Held in the middle of the Nevada desert for a week every year, it was an exercise in self-reliance, as there was literally nothing there. Nothing was bought or sold but instead was shared freely. I promised myself that I would go there one year.
The Man in 2012
It took 8 years until I actually made it there. It was mind-blowing. It was everything Kat had told me of, and more. Words can't capture the experience of being in a temporary city where art and expression and freedom and love abound.
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As a decommodified event, people bring everything they need, and then more to share. There is a real spirit of giving. You can wander around and be offered anything from Moroccan mint tea, to bacon, to pancakes, to coffee. There are massage tents where healers offer massages to ease your aching muscles, yoga camps to do some stretching, people who offer to repair your bike if it breaks.
Why do you need a bike? Because it's massive. This is a festival that holds more than 60,000 people. It's set out in a C shape that is about 2.5km across, in a dry lake in the middle of a Nevada desert, known as Black Rock City.
By Kyle Harmon from Oakland, CA, USA - Burning Man Uploaded by PDTillman, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13296939
The Man is located in the centre of the circle, and is burnt on the Saturday night, amidst fireworks, fire dancers, and pretty much the biggest party you are likely to ever attend.
The Man Burns in 2008
Each year there is a temple as well, where people can go to remember friends lost, or to ruminate on hopes and dreams, or even to get married. This is burnt on the Sunday night, and is a much more sombre affair. I've never sat amongst thousands of people so silent for such a long time. One year, the temple was so solidly built that it took about an hour to actually collapse, but you could have heard a pin drop the whole time as people were lost in contemplation.
From L-R: The Temple in 2014, remembering our friend Chris, the Temple burning
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One thing that people don't understand about Burning Man is that it is almost entirely provided by the people who choose to attend. It's not the usual festival you'd think of, that has a line-up of artists scheduled to perform, and a series of bars and food trucks to buy food and drinks from. Yes, there are massive sound stages, but these are funded by and provided by people who have chosen to attend. Yes, there are bars aplenty, but everything is free, as the bars and their drinks are provided as a gift to the community.
Almost anything you feel like doing (within the law) can be done there. Naked yoga? Tick. Disco Rollerskating? Tick. Playing mini golf wearing distorting glasses? Tick. Tightrope walking... hula-hooping... trampolining... pretty much if you can imagine it, chances are someone else has too and you can find it there to do. Or you build something yourself, to gift to everyone else!
Come sundown, the festival transforms into a playground of bright-lights, fire, and sound. Everyone wears blinky-lights, or glow-sticks, or more commonly now, electro-luminescent wire or LEDs. If you don't wear lights, you won't be seen, so it's for safety as much as for effect.
Burning Man by night
Once you arrive at Black Rock City, you park your vehicle and set up camp, and don't start your vehicle again until you're ready to leave. The only vehicles allowed to drive during the festival are termed Mutant Vehicles, or known more commonly as Art Cars. They are granted special licences.
Some of the Art Cars from Burning Man
I think in any given year, you barely just scratch the surface of what is there. It's only there for a week, before it's broken down and taken away. Everything that is there is provided by the attendees, except for the toilets and the "street" lamps, which are lit by a procession of volunteers each night.
The Lamplighters at Dusk
Your ticket price also funds grants given for art installations, which means that you'll find anything from life-size pirate ships, to a metal sculpture of a woman forty feet tall, to a tree made entirely from skulls and bones.
One of the many Art pieces you might find
As the world's largest leave-no-trace event, before leaving every burner combs the ground to pick up every feather, sequin or rubber band - known as "matter out of place" or MOOP. Everyone is so committed to keeping the natural environment as undamaged as possible, that if you want to shower, you collect the grey water and either cart it out with you, or use evaporation systems to evaporate it.
If you are interested in reading more about the ethos behind the event, a good place to start is by reading the 10 Principles.
The first video that I can recall going viral from Burning Man was The Places You'll Go. This was filmed at Burning Man 2011 and released just prior to tickets going on sale in 2012 and resulted in the tickets selling out in 20 minutes, and many longtime and veteran burners missing out on tickets.
My favourite video of Burning Man 2012 was probably the HulaCam. It gives you shows you a good cross-section of (female!) burners.
There's no other place I've ever experienced quite like Burning Man. People wear crazy costumes, if they feel like it, or nothing at all. You feel unfettered by convention, and discover that anything is possible, and that some of your best times will be completely random moments unplanned and unexpected. I set off one night and ended up meeting a stack of sky-divers on an art car shaped like a plane who gifted me a flight the next day to watch them jump out onto the playa.
Me with Jay, the double-amputee Iraq War Veteran skydiver who gifted me a flight to watch him jump over Black Rock City. He designed his own prosthetic legs with wheels which allowed him to land at high speed.
Burning Man is amazing and exhausting and above all addictive. After our first time in 2008, we returned in 2010 and 2012, and were all set to return in 2014 but our daughter came into our lives then instead. We named her Nevada.
My husband helping Nevada (aged 5 weeks) dance in front of the livestream from Burning Man 2014. Her due date was the date we would have set off from Perth to fly to San Francisco
We are looking forward to returning to the burn at some point in the future when Nevada is old enough to enjoy the festival. There are dedicated camps which are family friendly, and the program you are given on arrival advises which camps are suitable for children, and which should be steered clear of (for example Spanky's Wine Bar, where you have to get spanked before getting your free drink, or the human car wash).
Getting to the US and planning a week in the middle of the desert is a gargantuan effort, and not something to be undertaken likely. You need to plan to bring in everything you need, and to take it all out again. Food, water, clothing, costumes, and I haven't even mentioned how inhospitable the environment can be (with dust-storms, really hot days and sometimes freezing nights). For something a little closer to home, WA has its own regional event, called Blazing Swan. It's held every year over Easter. We are hoping to go next year.